Draft Seeds Bill will discourage seed-tech firms, here’s how

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Published: November 2, 2019 12:31:11 AM

Provides for price-control that will discourage seed-tech firms.

farmers, agriculture sectorIt soon emerged that farmers had taken to HTBT seeds in a big way despite it being illegal. (PTI)

Given the draft Seeds Bill, on which the government has invited public feedback, contains provisions for the Centre and states to introduce capping of prices, it would seem the government is willfully ignoring the lessons of the recent Shetkari Sanghatana (SS) ‘civil disobedience’ protest, and Monsanto withdrawing one of its most advanced GM offerings from approval. While earlier this year, the SS farmers planted the banned herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton as well as Bt brinjal—farmers’ experience with Bt cotton in terms of increased yields and profits guided their defiance of the law—Monsanto withdrew its Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex (herbicide-tolerant Bt cotton, or HTBT) seeds from the approval in protest of the government’s price control policy. The government went after Monsanto, the primary supplier of GM technology seeds in the country, first putting a cap on the price of Bt cotton seeds, and then putting a cap on the royalties it could charge seed suppliers that had licensed its technology. Farmers being charged high prices was proffered as the reason. To add insult to injury, then additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta even told the court, in a case where the government was not even a party, that the patent issued to Monsanto by India was illegal.

It soon emerged that farmers had taken to HTBT seeds in a big way despite it being illegal—nearly a fifth of the seeds sold are illegal HT seeds—and they were willing to pay much higher prices than what was mandated for seeds with older generation technology under the government’s price capping policy, since they found them highly beneficial. It would seem easy to blame Monsanto for introducing illegal seeds, but a government panel had opined that it was local seed firms that were responsible for bringing the seeds to the market. As the Shetkari Sanghatana protest shows, the fact is that the farmers are aware of the benefits of GM technology, and are even willing to pay a premium as long as the GM seeds deliver the promised increase in yields, which translates into profits. Any move to, thus, discourage seed-tech, especially by companies such as Monsanto that invest heavily in R&D to develop products that can not only drive up farm profits but also are fast emerging as a key need as climate change effects threaten agriculture, will be anti-farmer. So, it is difficult to understand why the government has made price capping in “emergent situations”—such as “scarcity of seeds, abnormal rise in prices, monopolistic pricing or profiteering in respect of a particular variety”—a part of the proposed Seeds Bill. The fact that illegal seeds are selling at much higher prices than the government-set caps for legal ones means farmer see enough value in GM technology that a Monsanto’s R&D churns out to be willing to pay a premium. This would suggest that even at higher mark-ups by seed companies, farmers are not sensing any price-gouging. Disincentivising seed-tech companies in the manner the government proposes to do will have the same effect that the price-caps in pharma and medical devices have had—with companies keeping their latest offerings out of the market, the Indian farmer will suffer, quite like the Indian patient. Given the efficacy of each iteration of GM technology tapers off with the years, losing access to advanced GM tech could seriously undermine Indian agriculture.

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